Towton 555: Remembering Palm Sunday

For the first time in ten years, I’m not stressed out as the date approaches Palm Sunday. Why? Because the Towton Battlefield Society annual event to remember the fallen of Britain’s bloodiest battle on Palm Sunday 1461 has been, if not cancelled, then radically scaled down.

Since my first participation back in 2005, the event steadily grew and developed, helped by a series of freakishly perfect Spring weekends which attracted ever more re-enactors and traders keen to start off the new season, and ever larger audiences keen to find something interesting to do on a fine sunny Sunday. From 2007 I was on the management team; and as secretary and chair of the Society’s in-house re-enactment group, the Frei Compagnie, it naturally fell to me and hubcap to organise the living history camp, guest re-enactors and programme of field entertainment, including combat demonstrations and a battle finale. Planning and preparation involved a massive amount of work – not only for us but for the TBS chairman and committee, other Frei Compagnie members, and many Society members who spent successive weekends gathering and processing wood for the camp fires, cleaning the barn to receive traders and exhibitors, and mowing and marking out the field. Then the event itself spanned four days of preparation, delivery and cleaning up afterwards, with everything from setting cones out on the roads, marshalling the car-park and cleaning out the Portaloos being done by volunteers, many of whom were fitting all this in around full-time jobs.

By the battle’s 550th anniversary, a low-key day of guided walks and a small living history camp had turned into one of the biggest private events of its kind in Yorkshire and, arguably, one of the best. Many re-enactors and visitors would come along year after year to enjoy the very special atmosphere of an event held in the grounds of Towton Hall, where the famous mass graves were found, courtesy of landowner and Society President Mrs. Elizabeth Verity; and in terms of commemorating ‘our boys’, I like to think we did them proud.

Alas, in the process we all ran ourselves ragged and it became too much to cope with. By December it was obvious that TBS wouldn’t have enough volunteers to run a large public event safely and professionally in 2016, and it had to be cancelled. To be honest, my relief was as huge as the task-list we would otherwise have had to embark on straightaway in the New Year. Realisation soon followed that neither hubcap or I could face ever picking up that burden again – it had always been very tough for a self-employed pair at the financial year-end, and start of the busiest season in Mick’s gardening business – so whatever might happen on future Palm Sundays, any living history element won’t be organised by us!

But of course the Battlefield Society will always commemorate Towton, and this year I’m looking forward to taking part in a far more chilled-out way. Our main public event is next Saturday, 19th March: a series of guided walks of the Battlefield Trail between 9.30 am and 2 pm – we’re leading the 11.30 walk – plus a couple of Society stands in the barn on Old London Road, where I’ll also have a Herstory stall selling new and pre-owned books, and the trilogy of Richard III CDs by The Legendary Ten Seconds. Then on Palm Sunday itself we’ll go round the trail again on a special members-only walk, which will include a wreath-laying service at Dacre’s Cross, before repairing to The Crooked Billet for lunch and a spot of archery. Compared to the amount of effort we’ve put in over the past decade, two walks and a little stint on my book-stall seems like a mere bagatelle!

So if you’d like to join us next Saturday, dress warm, wear stout shoes and come prepared to pay £3 into the Society coffers for your guided walk. You can also enjoy various medieval experiences at venues in York, including beautiful Barley Hall in Coffee Yard – see http://barleyhall.co.uk/event/battle-of-towton-commemorative-event/ for further information. Or if you’d like to support TBS but are too far away to attend these events, log onto Just Giving and sponsor our intrepid friends Wes Perriman and James Hodgson of the Red Wyverns (Clifford Household) who are marching from Skipton on March 18th and meeting up with the Beaufort Companye to complete the trek to Towton on the 20th. But wherever you are and whatever you’re doing next weekend, please join us in spirit and spare a thought or prayer for the thousands of poor souls who died in miserable conditions on that snowy Palm Sunday 555 years ago…

 

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History Matters: Shakespearean Battles at Towton

On Sunday 14th July, history was made again on the battlefield at Towton in North Yorkshire, when the world-renowned Globe Theatre company performed a Shakespearean marathon – all three parts of Henry VI, at the site where some of the action in Part III actually took place in 1461.

I went with some trepidation, I confess; Shakespeare can be hard going, so the prospect of three plays back-to-back, (starting at 12.30 and finishing at 10 pm, with an hour’s break between them), was slightly daunting. However, thanks to Nick Bagnall’s superb direction and an equally superb cast, it was a joy – beautifully interpreted, easy to follow and altogether riveting. I boggled in amazement at what they achieved with imaginative use of a very simple set; no fancy backdrops or painted scenery, just scaffolding towers and a few bits of cloth – but it became everything from the gates of Orleans to Wars of the Roses killing fields to the Tower of London, and much more besides. (You’ll find some pictures of it, and a link to BBC 1’s Breakfast News item about the plays, on the News page of Herstory Writing & Interpretation).

The way the fighting was rendered was also massively impressive. How will they recreate Towton, (a battle where more than 20,000 men are said to have died), with a cast of 14, I’d wondered beforehand. Well, now I know: with the beating of enormous drums, the clash of swords on scaffolding poles, and a handful of actors facing the audience, performing slow-motion, stylised movements with their weapons. It worked beautifully – as did the well-choreographed one-on-one fight scenes that crop up throughout.

Although all the actors were marvellous, Henry VI, played by Graham Butler, was possibly my favourite. I particularly enjoyed his appearance in Part I; as an infant or young child while much of the action takes place, he naturally does not speak; but he was a dominant, silent presence in his central tower, reacting to the dialogue, shrinking in horror from the violence, studying his book or twiddling his thumbs. It was a clever, subtle, very effective way of evoking this hapless king’s character; and sometimes very funny, as when the juvenile Henry reaches down for an important scroll, only to have it whisked away from his groping fingers. Wonderful. But Mary Doherty also played a corking Margaret of Anjou, especially in Part III when she gleefully slays Richard of York. Simon Harrison’s Richard, Duke of Gloucester was another real treat, portrayed as the classic limping, withered-armed hunchback (archaeology has proved that he wasn’t really like that, but the acting had to fit Shakespeare’s script!). And he made a delicious, gloating villain; also very funny, and (not surprising!) warmly received by a Yorkshire crowd.

The performance ended with a sprightly dance on stage and a standing ovation from the audience – and by heck, those actors had earned it. But I wasn’t sorry to go home, because Part III (featuring the Battle of Towton) had given me the heebie-jeebies. As a member of Towton Battlefield Society, I’ve studied, written about and talked about that battle ad infinitum. I’ve ‘met’ some of the battle dead – at least, their poor mutilated skeletons. And as one of the Society’s Wars of the Roses re-enactors, I’ve been on that field (the site of the Lancastrian camp, close to the location of the mass graves made famous by Channel 4’s documentary, Blood Red Roses), at all hours of the day and night. I’ve even slept there on numerous occasions, waiting, hoping, wanting to feel some frisson of atmosphere – but it never really happened until Sunday. Maybe it was listening to the hours of near-contemporary language that did it… for the first time, I felt the full horror of Towton not just intellectually but physically. Yes, it had really happened, right where we were sitting… and as the evening wore on I kept tensing, expecting a rout of exhausted Lancastrians to come panting over the hill, pursued by screaming Yorkists on horseback, cut down and hacked to pieces; expecting to see blood and body parts around my chair; becoming deeply unsettled.

So I have The Globe Theatre to thank for that – not only the most amazing day of drama I’ve ever enjoyed, but the deepest, most poignant connection with the true history I’ve ever experienced on that field. I commend it to you, if you get chance to go; the company are taking it to three more battlefield sites: Tewkesbury on 4th August, St Albans on 8th August and Barnet on 24th August. (It’s also on at various theatres round the country… but it won’t be quite the same indoors!).

History Matters: Palm Sunday, our best non-event ever

So the Palm Sunday event was cancelled – and considering that it’s the first time Towton Battlefield Society has ever pulled it at such short notice, our ‘exit plan’ worked a treat. Everyone who’d been responsible for booking personnel or services simply reversed the process – for me, that meant contacting all the re-enactors and places I’d sent out publicity to – plus a collective blitz on websites and Facebook.

Nonetheless, those TBS committee and Frei Compagnie members able to travel on Sunday morning set out with some trepidation – but luckily we found no knot of hypothermic re-enactors on the snow-covered field, huddled round a camp-fire stamping frozen feet and saying plaintively, ‘Where is everyone?’; no Society volunteers, no traders or exhibitors; and – thank goodness! – no visitors who’d struggled through the weather to our great non-event.

Paradoxically, the cancellation has done TBS some favours: thousands of hits and a 5% increase in ‘likes’ on our Facebook page, scores of posts and emails expressing sympathy, shared disappointment, gratitude for the (relatively) early announcement, undimmed enthusiasm for attending next year, and mercifully few complaints. Although we did get some funny reactions, the commonest being, ‘I’ve seen/heard the event’s cancelled – is this true?’ To be fair, the internet is rife with pranks and malicious hoaxes, but jeez… look out of the window, or listen to the weather forecast, and make an educated guess – is it likely we’d try and go ahead? Then there was, ‘Can’t you hold it on Monday instead?’ – a splendid suggestion from someone who’s clearly never organized anything bigger than the weekly shop. Oh, sure – the snow’s bound to clear in a day… so we simply un-cancel everything we’ve just cancelled, tell all our site volunteers and participants with jobs (not to mention the visiting public) to book a day off work and take the kids out of school to attend, and hire a fleet of giant hot-air blowers to dry the field out…

Or how about, ‘Can you get all the re-enactors to still come in costume so we can film them in the snow?’ Um – actually, some of them are snowed in. And I doubt the rest will be keen to drive for hours through hazardous conditions to freeze their butts off while you faff about with camera angles, then risk life, limb and expensive kit skidding about trying to recreate Towton in slippery medieval shoes – all unpaid, too, just like Margaret of Anjou’s troops. Of course, we could tell them to leave their cars at home, shoulder their gear and hoof it like the original armies – no danger of road traffic accidents en route then, or ruining the site with wheel-ruts. (Which thought prompted me to wonder: what percentage of the troops never even made it into battle at Towton because they’d succumbed to illness, exposure or incapacitating injury along the way? Sadly, I’ve never found a contemporary source to answer this; but combined with the difficulties of feeding and moving large numbers of men and horses on bad roads in the lean season, it’s probably why medieval armies didn’t normally fight at this time of year). In the 15th century, the whole campaign from Wakefield in December 1460 through Mortimer’s Cross and 2nd St Albans to Towton was forced by political crisis; but while the men of the time had no choice in the matter, we 21st century hobbyist soldiers do – and I’m sorry, film-makers, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Honestly – some folk don’t have the sense they were born with – or the capacity to think outside their own little bubble and understand the implications of what they’re asking of a group of volunteers. Meanwhile, the twenty of us who did get to Towton on this authentically snowy Palm Sunday had a very special time – as you’ll see if you check out the News page of my website.

History Matters: Palm Sunday: Hail the Towton Warriors

Towton Battlefield Society’s flagship event, the annual Palm Sunday commemoration of the Battle of Towton (March 29th, 1461) has just been cancelled.

Since the Society’s founding in 1994, this has only ever occurred as an advance decision forced by outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Not so in 2013… we’ve been planning it for months, expecting a bumper turnout of guest re-enactors, traders and exhibitors. But now all that hard work, preparation and anticipation has come to naught, five days before the event – and for what? The weather, with more heavy rain and snow forecast atop a week of wet, freezing misery for Yorkshire.

‘How ironic,’ remarked a friend with tongue tucked firmly in cheek, ‘that a battle fought in terrible snowy conditions in the 15th century can’t be recreated in the 21st because, though infinitely more advanced, our technology cannot cope. Oh, and someone might get hurt.’

Yes – these were indeed the conditions that tens of thousands of men and horses travelled, camped and fought in, back in 1461. The chronicler Jean de Waurin wrote of the Yorkist army (who had just marched up from London through another bitterly miserable Spring) that, ‘It was so cold, with snow and ice, that it was pitiful to see men and horses suffer, especially as they were badly fed.’ A nightmarish thought: all those weary feet trudging through the slush and muddy ruts of unmetalled roads, the miles of baggage train slogging behind, and the unfortunate souls equine and human at the very back, struggling through the mire left by those who’d gone before. And at the end, frozen nights of camping followed by a battle fought in driving snow, with Henry VI’s Lancastrians eventually driven off the edge of Towton plateau to skid helplessly down the steep defile into the flooded River Cock, in what became the bloodiest rout of the Wars of the Roses.

Ugh. Still, it wasn’t just the forecast weather that forced our cancellation. On the contrary, the prospect brought out a ‘Blitz Spirit’ among re-enactors and traders, with plenty keen to share the medieval experience as an homage, a challenge, or simply for fun (well, we are a strange breed). And I dare say a hard core of ‘Towton pilgrims’ among the visiting public would have braved the elements too, for similar reasons.

But as another friend observed wryly, ‘No-one sued back then for twisted or broken bones, stranded vehicles or destroyed fields. Yes, gone are the days you could freeze yourself close to death, knee deep in mud…’

Quite. As organizers, we’re taken inescapably into the realm of Health & Safety, risk assessments, legal liability, insurance claims etc etc.. It can all sound unbearably nanny-ish and precious, but existing and predicted conditions do ratchet up the risk levels from the norm expected at any public event to the strong likelihood of things going badly wrong, and serious incidents occurring. That could be disastrous – not only for anyone injured, or whose property was damaged, but for the Society’s reputation and the whole future of the event. Like it or not, we’re collectively responsible for delivering a safe, well-run and enjoyable experience for participants and public alike… which we can’t, when severe weather and travel disruption may prevent key personnel and services from even getting to site. The uncertainty of what we’d have, what we could cope with, the endless proliferation of ‘what if?’ scenarios all added up to an unacceptable degree of risk.

Because one factor we are sure of is that the event site is completely waterlogged, and won’t dry out even if it’s fine on the day. Normally, because the ground drains well, we’ve been able to manage with wet weather immediately before and during the event weekend – but normally, it hasn’t come on top of the wettest year we’ve had since God knows when, a deluge that started straight after our last Palm Sunday and has barely stopped since. My husband and I began to panic about the conditions last Sunday, when we went to do some site preparation and his barely-laden van sank three inches into the field. It took us a very fraught hour to extricate it, leaving a set of deep ruts and a deeper sense of foreboding. There’s no hard-standing car-park at Towton Hall (we’re talking someone’s private garden, after all) – so what would happen when hundreds of cars and vans drove over that beautiful grass and pristine ridge-and-furrow? Cue visions of it churned into a Somme-full of bogged-down vehicles and mud-bespattered, irate people, blocked access causing traffic jams and chaos in the village, and huge messy damage to the grounds that could take years to fully repair… on an archaeologically-sensitive part of a nationally-significant battlefield, an area we hope will soon be incorporated within an extended battlefield boundary.

No – we couldn’t, just couldn’t do it. So I’m not disappointed by the cancellation – quite the reverse. I’m applauding the Society Chairman for taking the brave decision (and whatever flak might go with it). I’m dancing in relieved delight that we won’t be stuck out in foul weather, watching our pride and joy degenerate into a shambles. I’m saluting with hundred-fold increased sympathy and respect those 15th century warriors who did have to march and fight in similar horrendous conditions. And the only thing that does disappoint me is the root cause of it all: this dismal bloody weather.